The War of Words

By Morgan Deane:

In the battle of competing ideas, sometimes words can be the first casualty. The abuse of the word “establishment” was so rampant during the election that I joked I should have started a restaurant with that name so I could get free advertising. All joking aside, misapplying words can muddle the debate, obscure real threats, or become a tool of hysteria.

Many of these words aren’t necessarily used with ill intent but rather as a way to illicit an emotional response and compensate for poor arguments. For example, anti-war advocates like to use the word “warmonger” to insult people or positions they don’t like without having to engage the relative merits of the proposed action. In trying to ask them for their meaning, I have never received a clear definition except “one who supports war.” But plenty of Americans generally oppose war while recognizing that terrorists, dictators, madmen, and those who want to use weapons of mass destruction should be stopped. That desire doesn’t warrant the insulting term “warmonger.” Their misuse of warmonger means that anti-war advocates don’t have to answer for the inaction they propose, which allows genocides to occur.

Moreover, there are policies and positions that sometimes run the risk of war but actually support peace. America, for example, continues to support Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and these are attacked as warmongering and “picking a fight” with China. But supporting freedom of the seas prevents a violent free-for-all in the region where disputes over territory would be settled by those most willing and able to use force. This applies to Syria as well. Hillary Clinton proposed a no-fly zone, which was repeatedly attacked by Trump and isolationists. It’s true that a no-fly zone carries the risk of war, but it has many benefits with great humanitarian value. A no-fly zone or safe area would help millions of displaced people and increasing numbers of persecuted minority groups, some of whom have been turned into sex slaves. It would prevent the use of chemical weapons and other war crimes by the Assad regime, and it has a great chance to weaken ISIS and other radical groups. But instead of engaging the merits of a no-fly zone, Freedom of Navigation, possible NATO operations, and so many other items, critics would rather launch rhetorical bombs that shut down discussion.

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter

One of the biggest misuses of words in the modern world—and one of the biggest threats America faces—is that of terrorism. It’s very popular to repeat the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This argument was used often during the war in Iraq to denigrate American military intervention abroad and simultaneously bolster the insurgents fighting America. In the sense that words themselves are weapons, this is entirely true. Various revolutionary groups, terrorists, and the governments that oppose them can use the terms to either bolster their position or undermine their opponents. Yet, despite the manipulation of words (and despite some of the disputes over the definition of terrorism), it’s still entirely possible to tell the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Behaviors like donning a uniform, discrimination between military and nonmilitary targets, discernment against or deliberate targeting of civilians, and declarations of war from recognized heads of state make it very easy to distinguish between George Washington and Abu Al Baghdadi. There is some overlap between insurgents and terrorism, but it’s not nearly as indistinguishable as the purveyors of the cliché would lead you to believe.

This means that we should be very careful in the words we use when discussing policy. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.” (In truth, it was a complex mixture of both.) Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage. In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side (for and against it) avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. In all of these debates, the very words used tried to shape the contours of the debate in a duplicitous way.


This is most important when it comes to matters of jihad. The strict definition of the word is rather innocuous. It means to assume a burden or struggle against unrighteousness. This is little different than the Christian phrase to take up your cross. But many terrorists are called some variation of radical jihadists. This leads to a superficial debate where one side argues that warmongers are unfairly targeting peaceful religionists. On the other side, foreign policy hawks accuse their opponents of trying to deny the existence of a radical threat. The reality is a bit more complicated. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the word who peacefully struggle against unrighteousness. But if even only 1% of Muslims are radical, that means thousands of potential attackers. The difficulty comes when the radicals deliberately claim the peaceful definition for themselves knowing that many in the media would like to call those warning against militant groups racists or islamophobic. The discussion then gets shut down between the various sides using contested and sometimes manipulated definitions.

These few examples could be expanded to included words like establishment, liberal, neocon, and even moderate. While they might sound nice and authoritative, many of these words are used as personal insults or to obscure sound assessments. Terrorists and jihadists call themselves freedom fighters or peaceful to avoid arousing a vigorous response from their targets. The media call foreign policy hawks racists or warmongers to stigmatize their position. Yet the threats remain. Hopefully those who want to formulate substantive policy can use words for their clinical precision and not their value as pejoratives.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.